How former NFL wide receiver J.J. Birden never let obstacles get in his way

By Eric Moreno | Posted 10/4/2018

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Growing up in Lake Oswego, Oregon, J.J. Birden had heard a lot about what he couldn’t do. He was too undersized to play football. He was not experienced enough to start. He would never play Division I. There was no chance he could make it in the NFL.

Time after time, he was told what he couldn’t do and just as many times as he was told, he proved everyone wrong.

“You know I always knew I had talent to do whatever I wanted to do,” Birden said. “I was always fast, but I didn’t start playing football until I was a sophomore in high school. Track was my first love. My dad and my uncle would see me playing in the neighborhood with my friends and they told me I needed to get out there and play football for real. I did and once I got some playing time, I got it. I knew what they were talking about when it came to football.”

While a novice to the sport, he spent his time studying in practice and on the sidelines of games – patiently. He was biding his time and learning everything he could about the game and how to use his natural blazing speed to his advantage.

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“Once I got a chance, I really showed everyone what I was all about,” Birden said. “I proved to everyone, myself included, that I was good at this and I really fell in love with the game. When it came time to go to college, I asked everyone in the then Pac-10 if I could play football and run track, because I was going to get a track scholarship. Oregon was the only school that was going to let me do both.”

Committing to the full-time grind of being a student athlete takes a tremendous amount of dedication and willingness to sacrifice. Time, social lives, and sleep are all put secondary to training, studying, and getting better. It was this type of commitment to hard work and sacrifice that Birden thrived upon.

“It is very hard to be a student athlete playing one sport in college and I was playing two,” he said. “This was what I wanted to do, this was my passion, so I was willing to do whatever it took to be successful at this. Oregon was the perfect place for me to do that too.”

Once he got to campus and established himself as a star on the track – he would go on to be inducted into Oregon’s Athletics Hall of Fame in part because of his place in the school’s 1985 National Championship Track & Field team – Birden soon found himself scouting the football team in his rare down time.

“I’d been watching practices for a little while and [then Oregon Head Coach] Rich Brooks saw me one day,” Birden said. “He knew who I was because of track and I told him flat out I wanted to walk on for the team. He looked at me and said, OK, let’s see what you can do.”

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Birden started out 14th out of 15 wide receivers on the depth chart. By his junior year, he was third and a starter as a senior. Despite his on-field success, Birden was often overlooked by NFL scouts mainly due to his size.

“Make no mistake, I was 5’10” and 157 pounds my senior year,” he said. “No one thought I could make it at the next level. I was fully prepared to go pro in track as I was getting ready to graduate my senior year. I didn’t even watch the Draft that year and had no idea I’d gotten drafted until someone told me.”

He was taken in the eighth round by the Cleveland Browns in 1988. Injuries stalled his career in Cleveland; he was signed to the practice squad in Dallas and finally broke through on the field when he was reunited with his Cleveland head coach, Marty Schottenheimer with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1990. He would go on to a key contributor for the next six seasons in KC and the Atlanta Falcons.

“I am very proud of what I was able to accomplish in the NFL,” he said. “I had only planned on staying in the league for about four years. I was always looking at what I wanted to do after I was done playing and then when I got my break in Kansas City, I wanted to make the most of it. All it took was for Coach Schottenheimer to believe in me and I am grateful to him for that.”

Now a motivational and public speaker, Birden draws on the skills and lessons he got from the game of football to inspire a new generation of leaders. Even when entering this line of work, Birden had to overcome obstacles on his way to success.

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“When I first wanted to do speaking engagements, I got told ‘No’ by a lot of businesses,” he said. “I didn’t lose hope and want to quit though. I’ve been working my entire career. I took the rejections and I learned from them and got better. That’s what football does for you. You get knocked down, you don’t quit. You learn from it and you get better.”